Walking through the gates of the Old Burying Ground in Beaufort, N.C., is like walking into another dimension. When I visited in September, locusts in the live oak trees were deafening and blocked out all other sound.
Established in the early 1700’s, Old Burying Ground is the town’s oldest cemetery holding fascinating stories about Beaufort’s 300-year history. There are approximately 200 stones from the pre-Civil War era; 45 from the Civil War period; 150 from 1865 to 1900; and a few 20th-century markers.
Many graves are marked with shell, brick, or wooden slabs because stone markers had to be brought by sailing vessels. Other grave sites have vaulted markers that were covered in brick to protect them from high water and wild animals. I’ve seen these at many historic seaport towns.
Paths between the ornate tombstones lead visitors through the oak canopied burial site. It is a beautiful, somber, and fascinating place to visit on a hot September day. I could have spent hours there, knowing that every tombstone has a story to tell.
One of the first graves I saw was that of Captain Otway Burns. Burns was a hero of the War of 1812. Over three different cruises throughout the Atlantic, Burns captured 300 British sailors and 42 vessels. He would later serve in the North Carolina State House and Senate. His grave includes one of the cannon from a British vessel he captured.
There’s also the grave site of a British officer who was buried stranding straight up, and a common grave containing the crew of the “Crissie Wright,” a schooner that ran aground nearby during the winter of 1886. Six members of the crew froze to death or drowned.
The most unique grave site within the grounds is very easy to find even though it is only marked with a Number 24. Next to it reads in a grave marker carved in wood, “Little Girl Buried in Rum Keg.”
When I visited, the grave site was adorned with seashells and small toys. The tragic story behind this grave dates back to 18th century with a colonist family by the last name of Sloo (rhymes with snow).
The father was a prosperous merchant captain and included his daughter on a voyage to England. On the return trip to the colonies, the daughter became extremely ill and died. The father, who had promised to his wife to return with their daughter, decided not to have her buried at sea. Instead, he purchased a keg of rum and buried her inside to preserve her body on the voyage home.
Upon return to Beaufort, instead of exposing his heartbroken wife to viewing the body, Sloo had his daughter buried within the barrel of rum as her casket.
The section in the northeast corner contains many unmarked grave sites and is considered by most historians to be the oldest part of the cemetery.
The cemetery is currently used for historical tours and ghost tours. Many who visit the site say it is one of the creepiest and unsettling cemeteries they have ever visited and swear it is haunted. (I found it jaw-dropping and beautiful–maybe a little eerie–but stunning).
Beaufort is a beautiful small town full of history, pirate mystique, and charm. It is a hidden gem of North Carolina’s coast and one that I will write about in a future post.